Chernobyl: The Cost of Lies

Image: Scene from the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. (HBO)

I’ve been watching the HBO series Chernobyl. Critics have been very enthusiastic. The series tells the story of the 1986 nuclear disaster, but the real story is the story of the thousands of Russians who worked to limit the devastation from the explosion and radiation.

One aspect of the story that has shaken me to my core is the role of truth and facts in the process of the disaster. Two scientists pursue the “why” of the disaster from Day One. One of them is an historical figure and the other an amalgam of several historical people, but they run headlong into a wall of propaganda. While they seek the truth of what is happening – the ongoing poisoning of earth, water, and air in Ukraine – the Russian leadership cranks out propaganda to save face and to keep itself in power. For the politicians, what matters is perception. For the scientists, what matters is the dangerous mess this has made, and the potential danger in other flawed reactors.

Again and again, the politicians stymie the scientists and laborers who are trying to get the murderous radiation under control. At one point, it becomes clear that the West German robot brought in to clear radioactive graphite from the roof of the reactor failed almost immediately because the politicians lied about the severity of the radiation. When the person in charge of the cleanup finds out, he wails, “They gave the Germans the propaganda number, not the real number! The propaganda number!”

Chernobyl is a series about the cost of lies, the cost of convenient and soothing “alternative facts.” Nature does not care what we believe. Gamma radiation does not confine itself to political needs.

I am also reminded that the people who actually pay the price for disasters are rarely the politicians or the wealthy. Here in California, fires are fought by young people, many of them prisoners from the state prison system. Homeowners may or may not be sufficiently insured, but many renters wind up homeless afterwards.

“Natural” disasters fall hardest on the working class and the poor: people who have to clean up the mess, or whose lives are irreparably damaged by it. Be it tornado or hurricane, fire or earthquake, the working class will clean up the mess, and the poor will suffer.

That, too, is what happened at Chernobyl. The politicians and apparatchiks of Moscow were not affected. They continued to issue their rosy predictions and denials. The scientists warned how bad it really was, and ran headlong into a wall of “alternative facts.” Meanwhile, working class people were quietly brought in to clean up lethal messes, messes that would significantly shorten their lives.

It didn’t have to be like that. The explosion itself was the result of a political covering-up of inconvenient facts, details about the reactor that didn’t suit the political narrative.

It didn’t have to be like that. Had Gorbatchev taken the disaster seriously from the first few moments and evacuated the region, many people would not have had radiation sickness.

It didn’t have to be like that. That is the story of Chernobyl, that and the absolute heroism of the ordinary workers: firefighters, coal miners, soldiers, and scientists. In its own way, it is a very good communist story, a story about the heroism of workers.

Emet, truth, is a Jewish value. We are allowed to tell a bride that she is beautiful, even if she is not. But we are forbidden to distort the truth when it comes to anything larger. “Alternative facts” are not a Jewish value.

We are living in a time of convenient lies. Chernobyl warns us that lies are dangerous.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: On three things does the world stand: On justice, and on truth, and on peace, As it is said: “Judge with truth, justice, and peace in your gates.”

Pirkei Avot 1: 18